It started out as a great week for the St. Paul Saints lineup. Manager George Tsamis added two formidable bats in 1B Brett Harper and OF Michael Burgess, looking to make up for some of the lost productivity that occurred when the Los Angeles Dodgers signed American Association MVP Vinny DiFazio and star first baseman Angelo Songco.
Burgess was acquired from the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League and comes with some impressive credentials. The outfielder is a former first round draft pick of the Washington Nationals, and spent eight seasons in affiliate ball before moving to Somerset last year. Burgess will be a real long ball threat at CHS Field, hitting double-digits in homeruns in each of the last five seasons, and will fit nicely in his new ballpark.
“Michael is a nice addition for us,” said Saints Manager George Tsamis. “He is a nice left-handed power bat that is a good fit for us in our ballpark. He hit cleanup in Somerset last season and came up big for them in the playoffs. He played a big part in them winning the championship.”
A few days later came the signing of Harper. The son of former Minnesota Twins catcher Brian Harper, the first baseman also comes with a quality power bat. He was drafted by the New York Mets in 2000, and has clubbed 30-plus homeruns in a season twice, most recently in 2012. Last season he was in Mexico, where he hit 16 homeruns in 54 games for Monclova, which also included a .294 average.
His new manager is pleased with the addition. “Brett is an experienced player that has been pretty productive,” said the Saints Manager. “We are happy to have him and think he will be a big left-handed bat in our lineup.”
Adding to the mix is veteran infielder Mike Gilmartin, who has been a key piece to the Lincoln Saltdogs lineup the last two seasons. He will compete for the starting shortstop position and can hit in several different places in the order because of how well he can handle the bat.
The three should help to make the St. Paul Saints lineup a formidable one for the second year in a row. Last season, the Saints led the league in homeruns (104) and were second in team batting average (.290). The team’s offense combined with a stellar starting rotation to help dominate the league and catapult St. Paul to a 74-26 record, the second best winning percentage in American Association history.
The combination of right-handers Dustin Crenshaw, Robert Coe, and Jeff Shields with lefties Kramer Sneed and Pedro Hernandez made this, arguably, the best rotation in the league and quite possibly the best group of starters the team has ever had. All five won at least eight games, and all but Hernandez won 12 or more. Sneed led the group with 15 wins, with Crenshaw falling closely behind with 14, Shields with 13, and Coe with 12.
Each starter had spurts were they were virtually unhittable. Crenshaw had a run of over 80 innings pitched where he did not walk a batter, and Coe came close to tossing no-hitters on two different occasions late in the season. Sneed led the team in strikeouts, and the five combined to lose just 13 games. A truly spectacular group that, when coupled with the offensive display the team put on, made the team incredibly difficult to beat on any night.
This week the team announced that three of their vaunted starters had taken contract offers to pitch in Mexico this year, sending the team’s manager back to the market to rebuild his pitching staff for this upcoming year. This last Tuesday, Sneed took an offer to pitch for Yucatan. Three days later Crenshaw signed with Laguna and Hernandez with Auguascalientes. That is 37 wins and 363 innings pitched that will have to be replaced. Adding to the potential turmoil is the fact that Shields would like to move to the bullpen for this season, meaning that only Coe would remain from last year’s rotation. That now means 50 wins have been taken from a team that won 74, a potential heartbreaker for the Saints.
Many teams would be looking at the possibility of this being a real down year, but not in St. Paul. Here, there is no doubt that the club’s Skipper will figure out a way to rebuild the team and have it ready in time for the team’s opener on May 19.
Earlier in the off-season, Manager George Tsamis was asked about this possibility during his show, Strike Zone, and made it clear that this is part of his job. “Each year you have to restock your team. When you have such a great season like we did last year, there is a real possibility that affiliate clubs will take a closer look at your players, and it would not surprise me to see guys like Crenshaw and Sneed get signed. That is just what you have to expect.”
His words proved prophetic, and now the Saints Manager will be scouring the open market looking for starting pitchers to dominate in the same manner that last year’s squad did. He seems extremely confident in finding success, telling the Minor League Sports Report, “We will find the pitchers in the next few weeks.”
For those who are concerned, don’t be. Last season, the club was in a very similar situation. Only Robert Coe and Jeff Shields returned from the 2014 staff, and neither had dominating years the prior season, yet both rebounded to be two of the most dominant pitchers in the American Association. On top of that, Tsamis traded for Crenshaw and added Sneed and Hernandez as signings. The club’s Skipper has faced adversity and has proven that he has as much talent as any manager or scout in finding quality players to fill out his roster.
The loss of three of the team’s starting pitchers appears to put the team behind their division rivals, at least on paper, but keep in mind something that manager said before last season. He expected that this year would be even better after more players heard about the new CHS Field and would be clamoring to come and play in St. Paul. If that is that case, 74 wins may not be the team record for very long.
Another sad blow the team took this past week was the loss of RHP Kevin Cravey. Cravey was added to the team late in the season and became a force in their bullpen, appearing in four games and posting a win and a 2.57 ERA. Tommy John surgery will sideline him for the year…Ryan Cavan looks to be rejoining the St. Paul Saints this season, but Tsamis is not sure when that will be exactly. Cavan works as a teacher and may not be available until after school is out…Expect Chris Peacock to have a prominent role in the team’s bullpen this season, but only if he is not signed bv an affiliate club. He was in Spring Training with the Pirates last season before being released, and has the stuff that will draw some looks from other teams. With Mike Zouzalik and Cravey out of the picture, Peacock could likely become the eighth inning guy for the team.
By Robert Pannier